This superb history begins with a bizarre criminal case in sixteenth-century England. A young nobleman was accused of attempting to murder his wife and his father - by using magic.
It turned out that the nobleman, the hapless Lord Henry Neville (who is notably unsophisticated - I kept thinking of "Neville" from Harry Potter) was taken in by a very strange con.
A man named Gregory Wisdom had persuaded Neville that (in exchange for money) he could help Neville solve various personal problems - Neville was trapped in an unhappy marriage and had substantial gambling debts beside. Wisdom offered Neville various enchantments or magical artifacts to help Neville with things like love, gambling, and learning to play an instrument.
To the modern reader this naturally raises a series of questions:
(1) What was the role of magic in England?
(2) What was the role of crime?
(3) How can people be so gullible?
(4) Who was Gregory Wisdom?
The rest of the book answers these questions with verve and style. The narrative is an amazing mix of anecdote and remarkable research, often hinging on incredibly obscure case records and testimony from the time (Neville's 8-page confession is photographically reproduced). The author places the odd culture and stories in the context of the broader historical forces sweeping Tudor England.
Some of the stories of the gullibility of people of the time are remarkable. Magicians would extract large sums of money from all classes of people, including upper nobility, in exchange for extremely bizarre offers of assistance. The insight in the character of people - indeed, otherwise very sharp people, like Cardano, a well-known mathematician - are even now very topical.
The description of the criminal underworld back then, the precursor to works by Dickens and say Crichton's "Great Train Robbery" is nearly impossible to put down as well. The author has found numerous court records and contemporary pamphlets that buttress his tale.
As it turned out, Gregory Wisdom was a physician, and the author describes the odd politics of medicine at the time, and how closely linked it was to astrology.
What ties the narrative together and distinguishes it from a mere history is that the author grounds his story in the specific lives of Gregory Wisdom and his victim, Neville. Along the way, one learns a huge amount about life in Tudor England.
The book's prose is marvelous, a real delight to read. The author has a wry sense of humor, as for example in this passage:
"Many Protestants wished to see adultery made a capital crime for both men and women....Henry VIII, a king whose reverence for the sacrament of marriage only increased the more he himself celebrated it, was affected by the new religion's moralizing tone, and drew on its rhetoric when he closed the Bankside stews for the last time in 1546." (p. 89)
There are just a lot of literary and historical gems in this book. The book, as an aside, clarifies a couple of Shakespeare lines as well. Thus, the exact meaning of Portia's question to Brutus asking if she were merely "in the suburbs of your good pleasure" is explained (p. 90) - the "suburbs" of the time were quite different from those of today. And magic is implicit in the friar's potion in Romeo and Juliet.
Anyway, I'm hesitant to divulge too many of the interesting nuggets and stories in the book which, after all, is fairly short. But I think it will be of great interest to anyone interested in history or even in human nature and human foibles.
Physically, the book is of good quality. It's small, with good paper, well bound, nicely typeset. Some of the reproductions of 16th century documents are difficult to read and one would have wanted many more of them.